Private World: New York Dolls at 50

Looking back on one of rock’s greatest debuts

Magazine ad for the first New York Dolls album (Image: Facebook)

Glammed up on the cover, street tough on the vinyl.

The New York Dolls managed an influence well beyond their brief lifespan, mostly because of their debut album, released 50 years ago today.

In a way, adding “New York” in front of the name was superfluous, as there’s no other city in the early cities that could have spawned them. They had their roots in Queens, the borough where hundreds of languages were spoken. Two immigrant kids — The family of guitarist Ronald Mizrahi (to be known as Sylvain Sylvain) had fled Egypt, first for France, then New York. Drummer Billy Murcia’s family came to the city from Colombia. As they started to put the band together, a local Italian kid — John Anthony Genzale — got their attention.

As with many young bands, musical considerations were secondary to pursuits governed by teenage hormones.

“We wanted Johnny in the band because he was a cool-looking cat who had all the chicks,” Sylvain told Louder. “So I said to Billy: ‘If this guy can’t play, fuck it, we’ll grab his girls.'”

It turned out Genzale, Johnny Thunders himself, could actually play. Soon tiring of bass, he made himself lead guitarist, shifting Sylvain to rhythm guitar duties. That created an opening for a bass player. Arthur Kane had fancied himself a guitarist, until he heard Thunders during a jam session. “”It was raunchy, nasty, rough, raw and untamed,” Kane said in his autobiography I Doll: Life and Death With the New York Dolls. “His sound was rich and fat and beautiful, like a voice.”

Kane offered to play along on bass. As of that night, the band, which had members drop in and out, had a core four. All they needed was a singer, because Thunders didn’t want that part of the gig.

Word of a high school dropout from Staten Island with massive presence had made its way to the four. Kane and Murcia found David Johansen’s house. Intrigued by their presence and appearance (Kane towering over Murcia even more than usual because of his platform shoes), Johansen agreed to rehearse with them. The Dolls were born, even if the classic lineup wouldn’t be in place for a few months. Sylvain, who’d gone off to London, returned and rejoined, not long after the Dolls had played a Christmas Eve show at a welfare hotel across the street from their rehearsal space.

The Dolls began playing shows in the city wherever they could — clubs, bars, bathhouses, wherever. They were getting known for sets at Max’s Kansas City and weekly appearances at the Mercer Arts Center (located in a hotel that would collapse the following year). They also would book rent parties (two bucks admission) at the Chrystie Street loft shared by Billy, Johnny and Syl. 

“Those rent parties, although there were only a few of them, were the best shows we ever did,” Sylvain said in his 2018 memoir There’s No Bones In Ice Cream. “Better than Max’s, better than the Mercer, better than London and Paris. When people say they saw the Dolls, I don’t care where they saw us, if it wasn’t at those rent parties, when we were young and hungry and completely untamed, they didn’t see us.”

New York Dolls New York Dolls, Mercury Records 1973

Regardless of where they played, the Dolls were not an uptown band. They had a love for no more than three chords, the classic rock and roll from the ’50s into the girl groups of the ’60s, mashed through a pop art, found culture aesthetic. To riff off the old saying, one person’s trash became another person’s trash. And these New Yorkers were putting it all together in one brash package wrapped up in loud threads, tall heels and makeup.

This was 1972. If you strayed too far north of 14th Street, you’d run into people thinking this rough-and-tumble band of five straight guys were, gasp, “homosexual”. They’d turned their thrift store, flea market and girlfriends’ closet finds into an attention-getting aesthetic that predated hair metal by a decade, straying from right-wing gender norms enough that places like Florida, Tennessee and Texas would try to ban them now.

But there was an exciting energy in those shows (some performances can be found on YouTube) along with the fact that the Dolls were starting to put together their own material. The same year as they’d begun playing welfare hotels, bathhouses and rent parties at home, they were booked to play in England (thanks to the UK music press catching their buzz early).

Their first gig there was one that, understandably, they weren’t the best-equipped for: opening for the Faces, Pink Fairies and Rod Stewart at a sold-out Wembley Stadium on October 29, 1972.

While it wasn’t their best day, things went well enough on the rest of their short tour that they were poised to get a record deal. That’s when tragedy hit.

Murcia, only 19, was at a London party when he passed out from a combination of champagne and Mandrax (England’s version of the Quaalude). In an attempt to revive him, he was put in a bathtub and force-fed coffee, which wound up drowning him.

The surviving four opted to go on. The auditions drew the future Marky Ramone and Peter Criss, but Jerry Nolan, who’d played in a band that had opened for the Dolls, won the job.

Paul Nelson, who’d later become one of the best music writers Rolling Stone ever had, was working in Mercury Records A&R department. The label missed on some of the acts he tried to get them to sign (like some Bruce Springsteen fellow), but he got the Dolls a deal.

This was no small feat. They were not polished. Their stage garb raised bigots’ blood pressure. They were most decidedly not safe.

In an effort to hedge their bets, Mercury hired Todd Rundgren to produce. He was coming off own classic Something / Anything? double album and had already done outside work for the likes of The Band and Badfinger.

The April 1973 sessions at the Record Plant needed a bit of finessing with Rundgren’s pop polish seemingly at odds with the Dolls’ strutting rawness.

As an example, engineer Jack Douglas, who often bridged that gap, told Flypaper of the time Johansen had finished one of his usual unpolished vocal takes, on the song “Looking For a Kiss.”

Rundgren, liking the energy, told Johansen, “Man, that’s going to be so good with a lot of harmony.” To which the singer immediately responded. “Harmony? Are you accusing me of having melody?”

Still, Rundgren didn’t impose his will much, realizing it would be both a fool’s errand and a mistake to change the Dolls too much.


VIDEO: New York Dolls “Personality Crisis”

The wisdom of that decision was apparent from the blast of “Personality Crisis”, one of the classic album openers, a great example of a song telegraphing the rest of its contents.

Johansen might have had a little Jagger in his act, but his full bore vocal is more intense than what you’d hear from Mick himself in 1973. The rest of the band tore into it with such authority, particularly Thunders, that even with piano (from Sylvain) and sax Rundgren grafted on, it sounded like the Faces on truckers’ pep pills, barely contained and seemingly ready to start melting on the turntable.

It was not uncommon to hear the words “but they can’t play” in some circles. And sure, maybe they weren’t virtuosos, but they had attitude to spare. Even if they sounded nothing like the Velvets, they weren’t far off from Lou Reed’s line of “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

Thunders was a prime example. Occasionally sloppy, but able to stay inside the guard rails, he was a much noisier Keith to Johansen’s Mick, often adding the perfect fills. He had a short run as nigh untouchable in his element — the two Dolls albums and his first two albums after — before the addictions would take their toll. But here, paired with Sylvain, he showed why he’d become beloved by a future generation of musicians.

His role was crucial with the rhythm section less prominent. Kane was maybe more proficient than Nolan, who was the drumming equivalent of Thunders — making up for in attitude and feel with what he lacked in polish. Rundgren must have had some issues with the drumming for whatever reason, as he pushed Nolan down in the mix.

Johansen was all over the album– co-writing four songs with Thunders, two with Sylvain and one with Kane. Three are sole credits for him with the other song being a smoking cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pills” that would have convinced anyone unaware of the original that it had been written in that Chrystie Street loft.

He starts off “Looking For a Kiss” with a nod to the band’s beloved girl groups with the way he says, “When I say I’m in love / You best believe I’m in love / L-U-V!” at the start before the band kicks in on a song that’s almost punk and post-punk at once.

The band’s energetic performance of the song on English television inspired a young Stephen Morrissey to pursue music, years before the Smiths and even more years before he became more known for blowing off gigs.

Among the Johansen/Thunders collaborations, “Lonely Planet Boy” is the flipside to “Personality Crisis.” Johansen drops the snarls, screams and drawls for a vocal that’s almost ASMR by comparison. It’s a delicate song that’s the album at its Stonesiest, thanks to Buddy Bowser’s sax wandering through the mix like he was Bobby Keys. Although again, it tops the influence, with Johansen sounding wearier and less affected than Jagger would have.

The respite doesn’t last long, as the two Johansen/Sylvain songs follow, starting with “Frankenstein”. Ironically enough, it’s not those two who drive the song, it’s Nolan, to the point where one wishes Rundgren had unburied his drum track at least once (or on this song first). It’s a rarity in that it could hardly be called economical, as Johansen piles up the words in a song about being young and trying to make it in Manhattan. It seethes as if the band had a chip on its shoulders which, considering they were from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, they did.

“Trash”, in contrast, gets the job done in just over three minutes. It’s about trying not to get swallowed up by that same big city which, spoiler alert, some of the band didn’t. It echoes that classic type of ’60s pop rock they had a soft spot for, delivered in quintessential Dolls style.

The Dolls image may have been that of fabulously trashy street urchins, young, dumb and full of, ahem, energy. But they were hardly dumb. “Private World”, with Johansen braying over insistent piano, is about trying to find a little damn quiet, for lack of a better way of putting it, a safe space in the middle of the Lower East Side’s vibrant decay.

New York Dolls ad in Rolling Stone (Image: eBay)

“Bad Girl” is self-explanatory, but Johansen puts a spin on it. He doesn’t just want to get laid, he wants to use the threat of the Cold War as a way to cross the finish line (“One nuclear bomb, they’re gonna blow it all away/Come on, bad girl, give us some lovin’ today”).

Not that the Dolls were all about getting into various states of unconsciousness. They could be socially conscious, too. “Vietnamese Baby” clearly paved the way for John Lydon and Joe Strummer. Although future butter pitchman Lydon would have denied it when he sneered his way through the homophobic putdown “New York” on Nevermind the Bollocks. In 2017, Lydon tried to deny it was about the Dolls at all, that the “faggots” in the lyrics were in reference to the old Northern English dish where the word means a meatball made from pork offal. Sure, John, and Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” is a song about a guitar. 

It should be noted that Thunders didn’t turn the other cheek. The kid from Jackson Heights shot right back, throwing some of the same muck right back at Lydon on “London Boy” on his solo debut the following year.

 Johansen doesn’t signal when he’s shifting the lyrical POV, but by song’s end, it’s clear he was just as disgusted as the pointless futility of the American intervention as so many others (I’m talking about your overkill/Talking ’bout your overkill/Got to shout about your overkill/Now that it’s over, now that it’s over/Now that it’s over, what ya gonna do?”).

The seamier side opens up on the tainted love of “Subway Train”, which picks up tempo in its solo section and at the end. It could all be so dark, but the Dolls are clearly having too much fun, as they do throughout.

Take the handclaps on “Jet Boy”, another song that only the Dolls could have spawned at that point, arguably Thunders’ best showcase, as he and Sylvain end the album on a (non-chemical) high.

Even with the seemingly counterintuitive pairing of the Dolls and Rundgren, the final result was an album that showcased what their earliest champions saw in them. It certainly had the opportunity to build off that early buzz.

The big sales didn’t follow, as it peaked at 116 on Billboard’s album charts. None of its singles cracked the Hot 100. They seemed to do well on the coasts, but not so much in between. In flyover country, it was easy to look at the album cover and dismiss them as, to use Lydon’s unbelievable history rewrite, “pork offal meatballs.”

It was also not a polished album, which might have undercut the chances for, say, “Personality Crisis” to break through.

Critical response tilted towards the positive, but sometimes writers at the same publication ran opposite reviews. Then came the year-end Creem Magazine poll named them Best New Band and Worst Band.

But influence was another story. Their look planted the seeds for the Sunset Strip’s future hair bands. The songs definitely were heard by soon-to-be-punks who took its lessons to heart. 

The Dolls couldn’t build off that influence for themselves. They lured famed girl group producer Shadow Morton for 1974’s Too Much Too Soon. But despite critical praise, it sold even less than New York Dolls. The lack of success, coupled with escalating addictions from multiple band members, ultimately ended the band.

Before 1975 ended, Thunders and Nolan had quit (future W.A.S.P founder Blackie Lawless was one replacement) and Mercury dropped them. The band broke up, reformed, then broke up again in 1976, but with no record deal, no album came. Some of the songs played live in their final year would appear by the end of the decade on Johansen solo albums.

Johansen’s self-titled solo debut, which he mostly co-wrote with Sylvain, was more refined than the Dolls, even taking the foot off the gas for some ballads. He shifted forms, moving more into hard rock and later taking on the blues. It was his nightclub persona of Buster Poindexter that gave him his one hit — 1987’s “Hot Hot Hot”, which became so ubiquitous that Johansen later called it the bane of his existence.

The other closest thing to the Dolls in spirit fell apart even quicker. Thunders and Nolan formed the Hearbreakers with Richard Hell, who’d left Television, in 1975. But Hell didn’t last, as the rest of the band chafed at his desire to take over as frontman. Band members were all well into their various addictions at that point, but their one album –1977’s L.A.M.F. — was a decadent, grim snapshot of where and who they were with a rock-and-roll kick with admittedly suspect production. Even though it was only available as an import for a while, its sleaze rock had its own level of influence. But these Heartbreakers were not functioning junkies and ended before any serious thoughts of a second album.

The 27 Club, thanks to random occurrence, became a way to mythologize big names who lived fast and died young. But it ignores a lot of people who died too young, but not at 27. The Dolls were no exception to that, sadly.

Thunders’ addictions were a never-ending battle. In his last years, he played with various musicians and could be seen performing often shambolic gigs in New York clubs. It ended in a New Orleans hotel room in 1991. The 38-year-old’s official cause of death was an overdose of cocaine and methadone. He was also suffering from leukemia.

A few months later, Nolan, after decades of IV drug use, was in the hospital for bacterial meningitis and pneumonia when he suffered a stroke he never woke up from. He died at 45 in January, 1992

Kane’s addiction was alcohol. A 1992 beating (that was never solved) necessitated extensive physical therapy. His post-New York Dolls musical career had left him bitter, disappointed and out of the business. He’d found some comfort in religion, becoming a Mormon and working at a temple. But he felt there was unfinished business with the Dolls.

Morrissey would be the catalyst, offering a spot for the surviving Dolls — Johansen, Sylvain and Kane. The period would be captured in New York Doll, a documentary by Kane’s friend Greg Whiteley. Two sold out shows in London gave Kane something he’d waited decades to enjoy again.

That enjoyment didn’t last long. Three weeks later, he went to a Los Angeles hospital with what he thought was a bad flu. He was diagnosed with advanced leukemia and died two hours later at 55, heartbreakingly shitty luck.


VIDEO: New York Dolls “Trash”

Johansen and Sylvain had enjoyed those London shows enough that they restarted the Dolls with the London lineup, save Sami Yaffa replacing Kane. Three albums, well-received if less influential than their ’70s heyday, would follow — One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, Cause I Sez So, and Dancing Backward in High Heels.

Now, Johansen’s the last one standing, with cancer claiming Sylvain’s life in 2021. 

Sure, the Dolls had the outfits and makeup that would make a right-winger now insist they’re “marxist and woke”, but it’s reductive to call the Dolls debut glam. This was an unapologetically New York rock and roll, played with urgency and wit.

It’s easy to lament what might have been for an ahead of its time band that fell apart before audiences could catch up, for a band who’d have so many members’ lost weekends turn into lost decades.

But then, they wouldn’t be the New York Dolls — five guys in their 20s, full of appetites good and bad, lightning in a bottle, teeming with an outer boroughs toughness and vitality that’s outlasted nearly all of them. 


Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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